Dr. Anne Dunlea’s Blog
How’s your empathy??
Empathy and how to help our children build empathy and act empathetically with others is getting a lot of attention from parents, educators, therapists and developmental scientists these days. And justifiably so. Children and teens who can interpret the feelings of others and interact with kindness, understanding and, when needed, compassion have better relationships and also feel better about themselves.
Empathy is the ability to experience the same emotions that someone else is experiencing. It typically emerges naturally, beginning in later infancy. When we talk about the importance of empathy, we’re really talking about the importance of empathetic concern and response. This is recognizing and acknowledging the needs of others and being concerned about their welfare.
I want to turn this issue around a bit today and ask you how empathetically you interact with your child. You almost surely have very tender feelings about your child and feel your child’s difficulties deeply. You probably hurt with your child when he breaks a toy, is rejected by a friend, fails a test, has a broken heart, feels badly about himself. We keenly feel our children’s physical, emotional and psychological difficulties. And usually want to fix them.
A more interesting question, is how do you respond to everyday events when you are dealing with your child’s feelings? Empathetic responses take the child’s perspective.
Consider these kinds of every day events.
Your child wants to play rather than do homework or a chore. How do you respond? Maybe it’s something like, “You can play after you get your work done.” That kind of response probably comes from a desire to teach responsibility or set standards or keep to house rules. Now suppose instead you said something like this. “Of course you want to play first. Playing is a lot of fun. Sometimes when we play, it’s hard to get back to doing things that have to get done.” Some follow-ons might be: “What if you play for half an hour and then you do homework?” Or, “I need you to empty the dishwasher now so I can make dinner. How about you do that then you can play for an hour?” Or, “You’ve got a test tomorrow. It’s not much fun to think about studying for it. Do you wish you didn’t have to study? …. How about breaking it up? You could study for 20 minutes, then you can play for 15 minutes. Then get back to studying for a while. Would you like to use a timer?” With an older child or teen you could let them know that they’ll remember more and be better prepared if they take breaks so invite them to take a 10 minute break every hour to move around or do something fun. As much as possible, encourage your child to help come up with ways to manage conflicting needs.
Your child wants to have ice cream before dinner. Do you respond by saying, “No. You know you can’t have snacks or sweets before dinner.” An empathetic response would be along these lines: “Yeah, of course you’d like ice cream. It’s good! But when we eat something sweet before dinner, our bodies don’t want other kinds of food. So that’s why we eat ice cream after dinner. Why don’t you decide which flavor you want tonight after dinner.”
Empathetic responding takes into account the child’s perspective and offers support and guidance for behavior. It doesn’t mean not offering guidance. It is grounded in recognizing and acknowledging your child’s feelings and desires.
So why is this important? Well first, you can’t teach empathy if you’re not acting with empathy yourself. In addition, it validates and respects your child’s needs and emotions, which helps your child understand how he or she is feeling. It encourages your child to build skills of self regulation, the executive function that enables us to monitor and control our behavior. It helps your child integrate information from emotional and cognitive sources, thinking about how to handle feelings and learning to make good choices. It builds resilience and positivity – feeling comfortable with feelings and gaining a sense that one can bounce back.
You may want to reflect on a couple of recent interactions you’ve had with your child and think about whether or not you acknowledged your child’s perspective and responded with empathy. If you did, take that in, feel happy about it, and remind yourself that those are good kinds of interactions to have. If you didn’t, imagine ways you might have reacted more empathetically and use those ideas to guide future interactions. Then remember to notice when you react with more empathy and take it in.
Responding to your child with empathy is really very skillful and loving. It is also related to two of our central insights or guiding principles, which you may like to read or re-read: The Key Insight and Interact Respectfully.
~ Anne Dunlea ~
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You don’t have to take on your child’s pains: In fact …. you shouldn’t!
This morning I got a text from one of my daughters, who’s away at college. “Are you around? I want to talk to you. I have a problem.”
Wow. Nothing can make a parent drop what she’s doing faster. A couple minutes later, on Skype, I saw a stressed looking face, that I love hugely, and eyes that began to tear as the problem was revealed. Fortunately, it wasn’t a catastrophe. But she was very upset and felt responsible for some plans gone wrong, though in fact, she wasn’t really to blame. I helped her come up with a few strategies for negotiating about a potentially non-refundable purchase for a canceled event. And tried to help her see that this was not huge, and was worth the loss if another solution couldn’t be found. I sent as big a hug and as many air kisses as I could squeeze through the Skype connection.
Of course, it’s not the first problem that’s come up: college students get ill, get stressed about an assignment, suffer romantic break-ups. Even those that are generally very “mature.”
Caring for kids brings a steady flow of “problems,” large and small: nasty cuts, broken favorite toys, ended friendships, lost games, embarrassing moments, illnesses, hurt egos – it goes on and on from infancy through adulthood. (And I know this stuff doesn’t stop even with fully grown “children.”)
This morning as I Skyped, I felt my heart start to ache, my head to get a bit jumpy and I started to worry and feel anxious. I really wanted to erase my daughter’s discomfort. I began to feel as she did – stressed and worried. It’s what we parents do – when our child hurts, we hurt. We suffer along with our kids.
Then a light bulb went on: I cannot take on my daughter’s suffering. Or anyone else’s. In fact, taking on her pain was exactly the opposite of what would help her!! If I stay in my own less troubled space, I can think more clearly, project calmness, and beam love to my child.
♥ This is a tough insight that asks us to go counter to our natural instincts. Much as we wish those we love to be happy and problem free, we gain nothing – and actually loose the best we can offer as a parent – by co-suffering.
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– Teachers need to re-teach material in the fall that their students knew in June.
– Students score lower on standardized tests taken at the end of summer vacation than they do at the start of summer.
This has lead to a push for summer learning programs and enrichment programs with “academic rigor” to curb the inevitable slide.
Maybe it’s time for a reality check and some thoughts about how children and teens develop and what kinds of things promote the full development of a person. Despite the “summer slide,” students do learn as school progresses and every parent and teacher recognizes that 2nd graders know more than 1st graders, 7th more than 6th, 10th more than 9th. So children are learning an impressive amount of information in school.
What concerns me is the focus on school skills as the gold standard for measuring development and mental growth. (And remember, I’m an academic — I value school!) Our children are already over-scheduled, more stressed than previous generations of children, and are pushed to excel at school and all kinds of extra-curricular activities.
What our children don’t have enough of is open unscheduled time. Time to play, be adventurous, and experiment without being evaluated. Time to invent things to do when there’s “nothing to do.” Time to invent games and play activities with friends without a lot of adult intervention. General intelligence develops from trying things out, discovering, and playing. Playing with friends, playing with stuff. Social and emotional intelligence develop through interacting with others and finding out with peers how to collaborate, solve problems, lead wisely, follow skillfully, share, care, empathize.
Instead of worrying so much about summer slippage of academic skills, it would be brilliant if we appreciated how summer can stimulate other important kinds of development.
~ Anne Dunlea ~
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A French think tank, the Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Économique (the French Economic Monitoring Center, acronym OFCE) recently suggested that new fathers be required to take paternity leave. Their reasoning is interesting and touches on two areas. From an economic perspective, they suggest that requiring fathers to take time off would help reduce the impact maternity leave has on the careers of women. It would in effect help equalize the playing fields for men and women who become parents and take time off of work during the post-natal period. The OFCE report also suggests that forcing fathers to take paternity leave would get them more involved in child rearing, help them connect better to their children and would get them more involved in housework.
The report is in part a response to a finding from the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development), which found that only four percent of French parents who take parental leave are men. Most businesses in France do offer paternity leave, but few fathers take advantage of it. In contrast, new mothers have paid leave with job security and just about every woman takes advantage of this.
While the idea of forcing individuals to do particular activities is something of an anathema in the United States, the OFCE proposal sheds some light on some important issues. I was impressed that the report specifically addressed one way to remedy the unfair impact maternity leave can have on a woman’s career. Encouraging new fathers to engage more fully in early child care and to support their partners during the post-natal period clearly has both economic and social benefits for everyone. While we remain far behind other first world nations in providing paid secure maternity leave, it could be wise for us to open the dialogue here to include family leave more broadly.
~ AD ~
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France has just put a new law into effect that gives employees the right to disconnect from emails in evenings and non-work days. The New York Times on January 3 quotes French minister of labor, Myriam El Khomri, as explaining that, “Employees are more and more connected during hours outside of the office (so that) the boundary between professional and personal life has become tenuous.”
The law recognizes the importance of personal time with family and friends, free from after hour invasions from work, and also seeks to reduce employee burnout. The law doesn’t prohibit all after hour emails, but requires managers and employees to set times when replies to emails are not expected, such as between 7PM and 7AM, as well as on holidays and days off work. Several other policy suggestions are recommended that reduce the shear number of messages sent out.
We’ve been grappling with these issues since the internet first took hold in the mid to late1990s. James Gleick was one of the first to explore the problems in his intriguing 1999 book, “Faster.” (Still worth a read!) In it, he discusses the impact of having everything running faster than ever before in human history and how all the new time saving devices and the rapid exchange of information makes us feel even more rushed. He also talks about the enormous toll taken on us when we are always connected, denied private time and denied the possibility of just turing off because the demands of internet technology invade our personal space. We soon realized those demands also intrude on the quality and time available for parents and children to interact in real time.
The new French law is a welcome step toward acknowledging and attending to some basic human needs. It also brings some vital benefits to children, with the hope of more undistracted face-to-face time with their parents. Whether or not it would be feasible for the United States to consider similar legislation, it provides a great opening for employees and businesses to discuss policies that honor the need to differentiate between work and private time, for the benefit of everyone.
Whether you are a manager or an employee, this offers a terrific opportunity to initiate discussions about creating suitable “private time” policies at your workplace.
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The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is a time of quiet and waiting, of long darkness, as the days slowly turn toward lengthening light. There is wisdom to be drawn from nature — all things benefit from withdrawal and stillness as a preparation for renewal. Just as the quiet darkness readies seeds to awaken and grow, we grow fuller after retreating. The dark quiet night soothes us when we are exhausted and need rest. Times of quiet calmness ease stress. And times of personal growth so often follow times of withdrawal or pulling back.
As winter officially begins, lengthening light also begins, preparing for the stunning reawakening of spring. One way we can nurture ourselves is to open to our own needs for pauses and retreats and to welcome them. Similarly, a thoughtful way to support our child or teen is to remember that they too need quiet times, times of retreat when not much seems to happen, before the next blossoming. This is how we develop.
Since the election, I have received numerous calls and emails from parents asking about ways to discuss the election outcome with children and teens. For the most part, these have been from parents whose children are concerned, disturbed or frightened. There are, I think, skillful ways to guide children to understand and move forward, drawing valuable lessons for the future.
To begin, it is important to explain that this is how democracy works. However disappointing the outcome may be to them, citizens of the United States do have a voice, and using it is both a privilege and an obligation. Votes are a commitment to the future. Election outcomes will sometimes please us and sometimes not. That is an inevitable aspect of a democracy.
Beyond that, you may find it helpful to explore with your child or teenager exactly which issues are especially important to him or her. For some girls in particular, the hope of breaking through the ultimate glass ceiling was paramount, and failing to do so is disheartening. For other children, it is concern about climate change and protecting the planet; for others the greatest concerns are about social justice and equality; still others worry about student loan debt and future wellbeing.
You can help your child identify area(s) of greatest concern and begin to find ways to channel frustration into positive energy to work toward meaningful changes. Children and teens can volunteer for organizations that support causes that matter to them. They can become involved in projects at school and in their communities that promote changes, even small ones.
Thus, if your child or teenager is discouraged or concerned, you can guide him to understand and appreciate how democracy works, to draw lessons about our civic responsibility to participate in it, and together you can find ways to use this an opportunity to get involved in issues that matter most to him or her.
Whether your child is happy or unhappy about the outcome of the election, you may want to encourage your child to be gracious with all friends and classmates, including those whose views are different. For that is the only way that democracy can continue to work.
Dangers, those things that make us feel vulnerable and at risk, come in two broad forms. Outer dangers are things outside of us that threaten us in some way. Inner dangers emerge from thoughts and concerns that we experience as negative emotions. Outer dangers include violence, unsafe equipment, natural disasters, handling machinery without the requisite skill and the like. Some of the inner dangers children face are risks of shame, embarrassment, of being punished, rejected or shunned. Author and Psychologist Rick Hanson commented in one of his Newsletters (July 5, 2016) that children respond to these kinds of inner dangers by putting on a mask, constraining who they are, in order to deflect unwanted attention. Sometimes those masks may come in the form of concealing parts of oneself, not raising one’s hand, not offering views, following unobtrusively. Other times, they may involve taking the stage and presenting oneself as the clown, the leader, the rebel. All of these are contractions, keeping parts of oneself hidden that may lead to painful experiences.
There are some ways to help your child feel fewer of these inner dangers. One is to promote feelings of self love, self compassion and self respect. You can do this by working with the first two Guiding Principles, “Love Genuinely” and “Interact Respectfully.”
In particular, recall that “Loving Genuinely” doesn’t just mean offering love without qualifications attached, but also loving oneself. Children, too, need to open to self love and self compassion. As you grow in your own self love, you are showing your child how to do the same.
An important part of respectful interaction is trust. Building mutual trust between parent and child is a focus of that principle, but building trust in one’s self is also vital. If a child loves and trusts who she or he is, a gentle confidence is created. That confidence, that loving trust in one’s self, helps children (and adults!) drop their masks. They needn’t conceal what they already like and accept. Interestingly, that authenticity makes others comfortable as well, often drawing friends and building supportive social connections.
Another of the Guiding Principles, “Set Up Success,” offers ideas for concrete ways to help children avoid the inner dangers of fearing embarrassment or shame or rejection. You can use this to help your child be prepared, by encouraging him to complete assignments, practicing skills he will be called on to use, and anticipating or role playing upcoming events that will stretch your child or teen.
If you have some specific ideas about offering support that helps your child avoid some inner dangers, or you have a success story, please share these in Forum.
We tend to fear boredom, not liking it, wanting to to find something to do. Modernity has give us a nearly infallible boredom vanquisher in the form of a smartphone. Thanks to downloaded games and music, a phone can entertain anywhere, anytime, so long as it is charged. Not only that, so long as there is a signal, it also brings the tantalizing reality of being able to interact with any number of friends just about anywhere. As a result, we never need to suffer the frustration of having nothing to do.
In the 20th century, a commonly heard lament of children was, “I don’t have anything to do.” Remember? Today, it’s a phrase less heard, because children can easily engage in some sort of technologically supported amusement: streaming videos or music, playing games, texting or chatting. Sounds good. But is it?
Boredom is a great catalyst for creativity and discovery. Boredom inspired children to invent games, to get outside and play, or see if friends were available to play. It led children to build forts and houses out of whatever could be found, or to pull construction sets or puzzles off shelves, or to draw or sculpt or even write stories. Boredom leads people, adults and children both, to discover what they are capable of doing and to innovate. It is, perhaps oddly, a boost to intellectual and social growth.
You may want to allow your child to experience a little boredom. For his or her own good.
In an earlier Blog I commented that providing child care is not, or should not be, an “unskilled” job. A US Senate Bill takes some first steps in acknowledging and supporting the importance of education for those caring for children.
Senator Barbara Boxer introduced legislation, S.446, to support child care provision in two important ways: one is to improve tax support to offset costs parents pay for child care. The other introduces an innovative tax credit for child care providers who have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. It is a first step, but it clearly recognizes the importance of having our children cared for by skilled, educated professionals.
Senate Bill 446
Right Start Child Care and Education Act of 2015
Amends the Internal Revenue Code to: (1) increase the rates and maximum allowable amount of the tax credit for employer-provided child care facilities; (2) increase the eligibility threshold amount and rate of the household and dependent care tax credit and make such credit refundable; (3) allow a new $2,000 tax credit for child care providers who hold a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, child care, or a related degree and who provide at least 1,200 hours of child care services in a taxable year; and (4) increase the tax exclusion for employer-provided dependent care assistance.
The bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee in February 2015, but there has been no action since.
The round of daily events — at home and elsewhere — often includes the need to make decisions, or to give permission for our child to do something. There’s an urgency to it, as others await our verdict. But haste doesn’t always lead to a comfortable or best conclusion.
Patience before making a decision is sometimes wise. It’s okay, in fact good, to pause before you make a decision, whether responding to someone at work, in your personal life or to your child. People who feel aware and have healthy self-respect and self-confidence tend to become more patient in making decisions. Rather than feeling pressured, they may say to someone, “I’ll think about that, and get back to you.” Or they may say to their child, “Let me think about that for a few minutes and I’ll let you know shortly.”
Taking time to reflect is likely to lead you away from making commitments you don’t really have time for or that you aren’t at ease with. It also role models thoughtful decision making for your child.
“The less skilled often take jobs that are hard to fill, like in child care, for example, which allows more parents to work.” The quote is from an editorial published in the New York Times on 9/19/15, commenting that Europe should welcome refugees from the Middle East and arguing that they contribute to the economy in a various ways.
What kind of child care is unskilled? This perpetuates the view that child care amounts to little more than keeping children safe from physical danger and providing for basic needs of food and rest. It equates with tending a herd of sheep. It dismisses what we know to be true, that children thrive, and humans reach their full potential, when they are nurtured with attention that gives them security, social connections to support their mental, emotional and physical development, and education that guides them to develop thinking capacities. Offering this kind of child care requires skill and knowledge.
Child care is not, or certainly should not be, an “unskilled job”.
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